WASHINGTON — In a devastating double-blow to al-Qaida's most dangerous franchise, U.S. counterterrorism forces killed an American citizen who played a key role in inspiring attacks against the U.S., American and Yemeni officials said Friday.
U.S-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in an air strike on a convoy in Yemen by a joint CIA-U.S. military operation, according to counterterrorism officials. Al-Awlaki was targeted in the killing.
With him, the strike also killed and Samir Khan, who edited the slick Jihadi Internet magazine, but Khan apparently was not targeted directly.
After three weeks of tracking the targets, U.S. armed drones and fighter jets shadowed the al-Qaida convoy before armed drones launched their lethal strike early Friday. The strike killed four operatives in all, officials said. All U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
President Barack Obama declared the killing of the fiery American-born cleric a "major blow" to al-Qaida's most active affiliate, and vowed a vigorous U.S. campaign to prevent the terror network and its partners from finding safe haven anywhere in the world.
Seeking to justify the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen, Obama outlined al-Alwaki's involvement in planning and directing the murder of innocent Americans.
"He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010," Obama said. "And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda."
Others praised the strike as well. Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Rep. Peter King says the killing of an American-born cleric in Yemen is a "tremendous tribute" to President Obama and the U.S. intelligence community.
In a statement, King says the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki is a great success in the fight against al-Qaida and its affiliates. King says that in recent years al-Awlaki has been more dangerous than Osama bin Laden.
Al-Awlaki played a "significant operational role" in plotting and inspiring attacks on the United States, U.S. officials said Friday, as they disclosed detailed intelligence to justify the killing of a U.S. citizen. Khan, who was from North Carolina, wasn't considered operational but had published seven issues of Inspire Magazine, offering advice on how to make bombs and the use of weapons. The magazine was widely read.
Following the strike, a U.S. official outlined new details of al-Awlaki's involvement in anti-U.S. operations, including the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing of a U.S.-bound aircraft. The official said that al-Awlaki specifically directed the men accused of trying to bomb the Detroit-bound plane to detonate an explosive device over U.S. airspace to maximize casualties.
The official also said al-Awlaki had a direct role in supervising and directing a failed attempt to bring down two U.S. cargo aircraft by detonating explosives concealed inside two packages mailed to the U.S. The U.S. also believes Awlaki had sought to use poisons, including cyanide and ricin, to attack Westerners.
The U.S. and counterterrorism officials all spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters.
Al-Awlaki was killed by the same U.S. military unit that got Osama bin Laden. Al-Awlaki is the most prominent al-Qaida figure to be killed since bin Laden's death in May.
U.S. word of al-Awlaki's death came after the government of Yemen reported that he had been killed Friday about five miles from the town of Khashef, some 87 miles from the capital Sanaa.
The air strike was carried out more openly than the covert operation that sent Navy SEALs into bin Laden's Pakistani compound, U.S. officials said.
Counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Yemen has improved in recent weeks, allowing better intelligence-gathering on al-Awlaki's movements, U.S. officials said. The ability to better track him was a key factor in the success of the strike, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Al-Awlaki's death is the latest in a run of high-profile kills for Washington under President Barack Obama. But the killing raises questions that the death of other al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden, did not.
Al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, who had not been charged with any crime. Civil liberties groups have questioned the government's authority to kill an American without trial.
Awlaki's father, Nasser al-Awlaki of Yemen, had sued President Barack Obama and other administration officials 13 months ago to try to stop them from targeting his son for death. The father, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, argued that international law and the Constitution prevented the administration from assassinating his son unless he presented a specific imminent threat to life or physical safety and there were no other means to stop him.
But U.S. District Judge John Bates threw out the lawsuit in December, saying a judge does not have authority to review the president's military decisions and that Awlaki's father did not have the legal right to sue on behalf of his son. But Bates also seemed troubled by the facts of the case, which he wrote raised vital considerations of national security and for military and foreign affairs. For instance, the judge questioned why courts have authority to approve surveillance of Americans overseas but not their killing and whether the president could order an assassination of a citizen without "any form of judicial process whatsoever."
U.S. officials have said they believe al-Awlaki inspired the actions of Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the attack at Fort Hood, Texas.
In New York, the Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to the May 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt said he was "inspired" by al-Awlaki after making contact over the Internet.
Al-Awlaki also is believed to have had a hand in mail bombs addressed to Chicago-area synagogues, packages intercepted in Dubai and Europe in October 2010.
Al-Awlaki's death "will especially impact the group's ability to recruit, inspire and raise funds as al-Awlaki's influence and ability to connect to a broad demographic of potential supporters was unprecedented," said terrorist analyst Ben Venzke of the private intelligence monitoring firm, the IntelCenter.
But Venzke said the terror group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula will remain the most dangerous regional arm "both in its region and for the direct threat it poses to the U.S. following three recent failed attacks," with its leader Nasir al-Wahayshi still at large.
Al-Awlaki wrote an article in the latest issue of the terror group's magazine justifying attacking civilians in the West. It's titled "Targeting the Populations of Countries that Are at War with the Muslims."
Al-Awlaki served as imam at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., a Washington suburb, for about a year in 2001.
The mosque's outreach director, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, has said that mosque members never saw al-Awlaki espousing radical ideology while he was there and that he believes Awlaki's views changed after he left the U.S.
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